In September this year, Vimla Devi from Jaipur (photograph below) died after fasting for 14 days in keeping with a Jain custom. A week later, Amar Chand also performed the Jain custom of santhara.
Both these deaths resulted in campaigners protesting against this ancient practice of starving oneself to prepare for death. The campaigners want the custom banned, calling it akin to suicide. Members of the Jain community, in turn, have protested against santhara being equated to suicide and sati.
The fact of the matter is santhara is not killing oneself, but preparing oneself for death. In its essence, it is about minimising one’s attachment towards one’s body. The sole purpose of santhara is to achieve complete emancipation from the mortal body. Suicide, on the other hand,
is undertaken when life becomes unbearable or is the result of fear. Suicide is not only a crime, but it is also a sin. The Jain practice of santhara, however, is conducted only in old age with the full concurrence of members of the family who in turn cooperate with the one performing this last rite.
Jains believe that life should be lived with grace and dignity. Death is also given the same respect as life as both life and death are seen as not opposing events, but parts of one continuous phenomenon.
The Jain manuscript, ‘Ratna Karand Shrav Kachar’ states that at the time of extreme old age or when stricken by an incurable disease, a Jain Shrawak should reduce his or her attachment towards life and practise santhara.
Stalwarts in India’s history like Chanakya and Vinoba Bhave accepted santhara during the last days of their lives. In the case of Bhave, not even the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, could break his vow.
So by no stretch of imagination can santhara, as defined in the Jain faith, be equated with suicide. Its sole objective is to detach oneself from life, not to kill oneself.